by Rob Mahan
Copyright © 2009
Roger O’Malley woke with a start as the old family clock in the dining room chimed six in the morning. He had brought his wife and their first child home from the hospital the night before. They had both been up several times in the night to check on Charles William O’Malley, as all new parents do, sometimes at a whimper or a cry and sometimes just to make sure he was still breathing.
“Good morning, Charlie,” Roger said softly as he bent over the crib railing to look at his tiny son. He reached into the crib and gently put his hand on Charlie’s back, nearly covering it with his palm. Roger could feel the steady rhythm of Charlie’s little heart as he marveled at the miracle of life, his own son’s life, right there next to him.
With feelings of joy and elation mixed with just a bit of anxiousness at being a brand new father, Roger headed for the kitchen to make a big celebration breakfast.
The wonderful smells of scrambled eggs, toast and bacon drifted out of the kitchen and through the whole house as the dining room clock chimed eight o’clock. Roger was putting strawberry jam on the last piece of toast when Charlie appeared at the doorway to the kitchen.
“Are you hungry yet, Charlie?” Roger said as Charlie leaned on the doorway for balance. He could already manage several steps in a row before he abruptly sat down unless there was something to hold onto. He gave his daddy a toothless smile that lit up his whole face before abandoning his grip on the doorway. Charlie took several steps into the middle of the kitchen before he lost his balance and sat down with a thump. A look of surprise came over his face as a wail started to build in his throat. Roger took two quick steps over to Charlie and leaned down to pick him up as Charlie stretched out his arms and said “Da-da!”
Roger deposited Charlie in the high chair beside his own chair at the table, where his scrambled eggs were waiting for him. On the tray in front of Charlie, he set a bowl of warm cereal that could have passed for wallpaper paste. Even though Roger shoveled two spoonfuls of cereal into Charlie’s open mouth for every bite of eggs that he took, Charlie still kept reaching towards the plate on the table.
“OK, Charlie, at the rate you are growing, I guess a little bite of scrambled egg won’t hurt,” Roger said. As he guided a healthy spoonful of egg into Charlie’s mouth, he said “Wow, look what time it is! I have to get into the office and finish up the article I have due at the end of this week!” Charlie gave him a send-off to his upstairs office with an enthusiastic “Da-da!”
Roger had been working on his article for a couple of hours when Charlie proudly presented himself at the door of his father’s office. Roger looked up from the screen and studied Charlie from head to toe before he said with a sly grin, “Charlie, why are you all dressed up? Do you have some place to go?”
“Daddy!” Charlie exclaimed, “You know I’m going to school for the first time! I’m a First Grader now!” With his mother waiting just outside the door and a new lunch box in hand, Charlie waited for his daddy to tell him that he had not forgotten about this important day.
Roger got up from his desk and walked all the way around Charlie, inspecting him like a new recruit instead of a new schoolboy. He finally knelt in front of Charlie and said, “Yes, Charlie. I know it’s your first time going to school and I am very proud of you, too. You’re really a big boy now.” Roger reached into his pocket and held a brand new silver dollar out to Charlie. “Keep this in your pocket for good luck.”
Charlie put the silver dollar in his pocket, gave his daddy a big hug around the neck and was out the door and on his way to school for the first time.
Around noon, Roger was back in the kitchen making lunch when Charlie burst through the door with a backpack full of books and a team bag stuffed with his eighth grade baseball uniform, glove and cleats. Already almost as tall as Roger, he gave his dad a high five and said, “What’s for lunch, dad? I’m starving!”
“You’re always hungry now,” Roger laughed. “What do you feel like?”
“Well, I’d really like a couple of hamburgers and some fries but I don’t think I have time. If I’m late for practice again, the coach is going to be mad at me.”
“How about some of that leftover pot roast and mashed potatoes? I can warm them up pretty quick and they’ll give you protein for muscle and some carbs for energy to get you through practice,” Roger said.
“That sounds great, Dad,” Charlie said. “Dad. Can I ask you something?”
“Sure, Charlie. Anything. Is there something wrong?”
“No, not really,” Charlie started slowly. “It’s just that there’s this girl in school who started being kind of mean to me lately. She calls me names sometimes and whenever I look at her, she just stares at me. She even hit me in the arm for no reason at all! What should I do?”
Roger ran a hand through his thinning hair and looked at Charlie with a smile on his face before he said, “Charlie, I’m afraid I can’t tell you what to do, but I can tell you this. There’s a good chance she likes you but she just hasn’t quite figured out how to tell you yet.”
Charlie’s brows knitted together as he thought about what his dad had just said. Slowly, a grin spread over his face and he said, “Thanks, Dad. I was really confused. I actually think she’s kind of cute!”
As he headed down the sidewalk to baseball practice, Charlie had a warm feeling in his stomach and a little extra spring in his step.
The sun was shining and the air was dripping with humidity as Roger pushed the mower across the front yard. Wishing he had taken a break from his article before it had gotten so hot, he stopped to get some water just as Charlie pulled into the driveway in his beat up Chevy. The old car had seen better days but it was his first car so it was special to Charlie.
Roger walked up to the driver’s side window just as Charlie turned off the ignition. The backfire was loud enough to make them both jump.
“How’s she running, son?” Roger asked with a laugh.
“Great, Dad. I needed a jump after school today but as soon as I change the head gaskets, rebuild the carburetor, get an alignment, new tires, some body work and a paint job she’ll be just like new!” Charlie replied, not even trying to hide the sarcasm in his voice. The many infirmities of the old Chevy was a running joke between them, as they tackled them one at a time. “I just hope I don’t need a jump to get home from the Senior Prom tonight.”
“I’ve been thinking about that, too,” Roger said as he slowly stretched and tried to knuckle some of the ever present stiffness out of the small of his back. “I got you a new set of jumper cables. They’re in the garage. Why don’t you go check them out?”
“Gee, uh, thanks Dad. That was really thoughtful of you,” Charlie said as he hit the garage door opener on his visor. As the garage door went up, Charlie’s eye’s opened wider too. In his normal spot in the garage stood a brand new Chevy.
“Dad, what did you do?” Charlie exclaimed as he threw open the door of his old beater car and headed for the garage.
“I wasn’t kidding, Charlie,” Roger called after him with a grin on his face. “The new jumper cables are in the trunk!”
He managed to finish the lawn, but mowing in the heat had taken its toll on Roger. Sweaty and exhausted, he must have sat down in his chair in the living room and fallen fast asleep for an hour or two. Groggily, he awoke to the sound of someone walking past his chair.
“Who’s that?” Roger said with his eyes still half closed.
“Oh, hey, Dad,” Charlie said quietly. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you. I thought you knew I was coming home to do some laundry. The washing machine in my dorm is always either broken or busy.”
“I remember now,” Roger said, slowly waking up to a stiff back and aches in both legs. “How are your classes going?”
“Good,” replied Charlie. “Now that I am finally getting into my electives, they are a lot more interesting than all those prerequisites I had to take. I’m starting to think I will really enjoy working in this field.”
“That’s great to hear, Charlie,” Roger said. “One of the things I want most for you is to find something you are passionate about. That makes working at it so much more enjoyable and meaningful.”
“Thanks,” Charlie said, “I really appreciate it. Hey, you look like you could use a shower. I’ll wait to start the washing machine until you’re done.”
Still feeling achy and tired after a shower and supper, Roger slowly pushed himself up from his living room chair when the telephone rang in the kitchen. It rang several times as he shuffled toward it, hoping whoever was calling would know to let it ring for a while.
“Hello, Dad. This is Charlie.”
“Well, hello Charlie. It’s great to hear your voice. For being so far away, you sound like you’re right next door.”
“I just wanted to let you know that I am settled in my apartment and my telephone service is started,” Charlie said. “My new boss is great and I’m really excited about the mission of this company. With everything I learned in college, I think I will be able to contribute right away. Getting a real paycheck is pretty nice, too!”
“That’s great, Charlie. Really great. I am very happy for you and very proud of you, too.”
“Thanks, Dad,” Charlie said. “That means a lot to me. Hey, can I ask you a question? There’s a girl at work who just graduated, too. Her name is Maria and she sits in the cubicle across the aisle from mine. She hits me in the arm for no reason at all. Do you have any idea what that might mean?”
Roger chuckled into the receiver and said, “Son, I think you should probably know what that means by now.”
As Roger hung up the telephone and slowly turned to go back to the living room, an intense mixture of love, pride and something that felt a lot like being homesick dampened his eyes.
The eight o’clock cable news was just coming on when Roger heard a knock at the front door. Doesn’t matter, he thought. The talking heads are just going to say the same things all over again.
Roger hadn’t gotten up from his chair when his wife called from the entryway, “Dear, the children are here!”
A moment later, Charlie and Maria walked into the living room. Maria was carrying Roger’s grandson, Will, in her arms.
“Hello, Dad,” Charlie said as both he and Maria bent down to give Roger a kiss on his scratchy, wrinkled cheek. “We were in the neighborhood and thought we’d stop in for a minute so Will could see his Grandpa.”
“I’m so glad you did,” said Roger, as Maria laid Will in his arms. “It’s good to have you so much closer to us again.”
Roger looked down at Will’s upturned and smiling face and thought about holding Charlie just the same way, not so very long ago.
“Is everything OK, Dad?” Charlie said. Roger looked up from Will’s face and realized that he had been deep in thought for several minutes.
“Yes, yes, everything is wonderful,” Roger said. “I just took a little trip down memory lane, I guess.”
Roger looked back down at Will, who was still smiling sweetly at him when Maria gently picked him up again.
Slowly brushing his teeth, Roger tried to piece together the events of the busy day that was nearly done. It seemed like so much had happened, yet the time had gone by so quickly. His thoughts seemed to ebb and flow like mist. Images of Charlie would come into sharp focus then fade again, in spite of him trying in vain to hold onto them.
Around ten o’clock, Roger picked up the telephone in the bedroom and dialed Charlie’s number by the light of the lamp on the nightstand.
“Hello, Dad,” Charlie answered on the third ring. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing is wrong, Charlie. I just wanted to talk to you about some things,” Roger replied.
“Right now?” Charlie asked. “I mean, sure, Dad. It’s just that the kids are all asleep, Maria hasn’t been feeling well and I have an early flight to catch for work. Can it wait until I have more time?”
“Oh, sure, Charlie. It wasn’t anything important. Sure, sure. It can wait.”
“OK, thanks, Dad. I’ll talk to you soon,” Charlie replied. “And Dad?”
“I love you, Dad.”
“I love you too, son.”
Roger was dimly aware of waking up, remembering parts of a brief conversation with Charlie right before he had gone to bed. The light on his nightstand was on and there were people in his bedroom, gathered around his bed.
Before he could say anything, Charlie leaned close to his face and said, “Hello, Dad. Mom called and said we should come. Maria and all the children are here, too.”
“I’m glad you did, Charlie. It always makes my heart glad to see you,” whispered Roger. “How’s work going? I know you have been really busy.”
“Oh, Dad,” Charlie softly replied. “I’ve been retired for quite a while. You know Will is married now and Rachel and Becca are both in college, too.”
“Yes, yes, I knew that,” Roger said softly. “I’m sorry. Sometimes I forget important things.”
“Don’t be sorry, Dad. It’s been a long day and you must be very tired,” Charlie said.
“Yes, it has been a very long day,” said Roger. “But Charlie, it has been a wonderful day.”
With the silver dollar still in his pocket, Charlie laid his hand gently on Roger’s chest and said, “Yes, Dad. It has been a most wonderful day.”
Charlie could feel the slow, faint rhythm of his father’s heart beating beneath his hand as the clock in the dining room struck midnight.